A Generation in Transition: A Study of the Usage and Attitudes Toward Public Libraries by Generation 1.5 Composition Students

Curt Asher and Emerson Case

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Generation 1.5 students are those who appear fully conversant in American English and culture but are still in the process of learning English when they enter college. This study, based on the findings of a 51-question survey administered to 285 students in a first-year college composition course, examines the effect and role that public libraries have in the success of Generation 1.5 college writers. The findings raise questions about the role public libraries play in preparing students for college. The article suggests reasons for heavy public library use by Generation 1.5 college students, even when academic libraries are available to them.

The current study investigates the attitudes toward public library usage held by Generation 1.5 students in a university composition course that has as its main function teaching the research paper. Generation 1.5 students are those who appear fully conversant in American English and culture but are still in the process of learning English when they enter college.1 They exhibit reading and writing difficulties, which are especially problematic in university writing courses. The findings have implications for how public librarians and college composition instructors can help assist these students.

According to the latest census figures, there are nearly 10 million people living in the United States between the ages of 5 and 17 who are members of non-English speaking households. This represents 18.4 percent of this population, compared with 13.9 percent of the population in 1990. In California, 42.6 percent of school-aged children are members of households where English is not the primary language.2 This situation is particularly acute in California’s San Joaquin Valley, where this study took place.

With the increase of Generation 1.5 student immigrant populations in the United States, it has become urgent for public libraries to identify and assist these students in their transition from high school to college. In the present study, the primary focus was on children of Mexican immigrants, a group highly represented at California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB), where this study took place.

Literature Review

Academic Literacy Skills

In the field of second language acquisition, there is a fairly long history of looking at the academic literacy needs of second language learners and the academic tasks that face second language college students. Saville-Troike, Bridgeman and Carlson, Horowitz, and Ostler for example, used surveys to assess what types of academic activities students were performing at the college level.3 Other studies, (Christison and Krahnke, Leki and Carson) have examined the students’ own perceptions of their academic needs.4 Other studies (Currie, Shuck) have looked specifically at the needs for writing classes.5

The debate has also been informed by the work of Cummins, who proposes a distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP).6 BICS are cognitively less-demanding skills needed for daily social interaction and are employed by English language learners “when they are on the playground, in the lunch room, on the school bus, at parties, playing sports and talking on the telephone.” CALP, on the other hand, refers to the more cognitively demanding skills of “listening, speaking, reading, and writing about subject area content material.” This level of language learning, which Cummins claims may take from five to seven years to attain, is the level that is essential for students to be successful academically.7

Definition of Generation 1.5

The term Generation 1.5 itself comes from Rumbaut and Ima, who used the term “‘1.5’ generation” to describe refugee youth from Vietnam, Cambodia, Indochina, and Laos.8 They state that such students “are neither part of the ‘first’ generation of their parents, the responsible adults who were formed in their homeland, who made the fateful decision to leave it and to flee as refugees to an uncertain exile in the United States, and who are thus defined by the consequences of that decision and by the need to justify it; nor are these youths part of the ‘second’ generation of children who are born in the U.S., and for whom the ‘homeland’ mainly exists as a representation consisting of parental memories and memorabilia, even though their ethnicity may remain well defined.”9

In an approach somewhat parallel to Rumbaut and Ima, Reid has made the distinction “U. S. Resident ESL Writers,” also called “ear” learners, and “International Student Writers,” also called “eye” learners. According to Reid, traditional international students are made up of those who “have chosen to attend postsecondary schools in the U.S., in much the same way that U.S. college students spend a semester or a year ‘abroad.’ Many of these nonimmigrant, visa-holding students come from relatively privileged and well-educated backgrounds. They are literate and fluent in their first language, and they have learned English in foreign language classes.” These students, who Reid refers to as “eye” learners, “have learned English principally through their eyes, studying vocabulary, verb forms, and language rules.” Because they have studied English grammar extensively, they understand and can explain its rules. While they are often highly capable readers, they may exhibit poor listening and speaking abilities that are “hampered by lack of experience, nonnative English-speaking teachers, and the culture shock that comes from being immersed in a foreign culture.”10

Generation 1.5 students, in contrast to international students, are those who, according to Harklou, “enter college while still in the process of learning English.”11

Reid describes these students as “ear” learners who “have learned English by being suddenly immersed in the language and the culture of the U.S.” She explains that these students learn English principally by hearing it and interacting with people in the community such as teachers, friends, and other members of the community. Television may also play a role. These students “subconsciously began to form vocabulary, grammar, and syntax rules, learning English principally through oral trial and error.”12

As Harklau points out, these students may have well-developed English language social skills and therefore appear to have native-like conversational skills.13 According to Reid, Generation 1.5 students have often graduated from American high schools and are conversant in American culture, with advanced oral and listening abilities. Because of these experiences they “understand the slang, the pop music, the behaviors, and the ‘cool’ clothes of the schools they attend. Their background knowledge of life in the U.S. is, in many cases, both broad and deep: Their personal experiences have made them familiar with class structures and expectations; they have opinions on current controversies and issues; and they recognize cultural references to, for instance, television programs, cartoon humor, and advertising.”14The term “Generation 1.5” took on new currency with the publication in 1999 of Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL, edited by Harklau, Losey, and Siegal. The volume, which gives the best definition to date of “Generation 1.5,” examines the students themselves, using “case studies and interviews to develop in-depth profiles of the backgrounds, attitudes, and college experiences of language minority students with writing.”15 It also examines “the high school and college classroom settings in which language minority students learn to write” then explores “the strengths and weaknesses of various configurations of writing programs for U.S.-educated second-language learners.”16

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